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The Democratization of Car Technology

Tech features in lower-priced cars can be as good as, if not better than, those in some luxury vehicles.

By Douglas Newcomb Jul 16, 2012 4:58AM

Mercedes-Benz Bluetooth system.It’s always been expected that if you pay more money for a vehicle, you get better features. But with the rapid and widespread integration of car technology during recent years, that doesn’t always hold true. With the exception of advanced safety systems such as collision avoidance and lane-departure warnings, you can sometimes get better technology in a lower-priced vehicle than you can get on some luxury models -- particularly when it come to infotainment.

This democratization of car tech started when Ford introduced its game-changing Sync system. Whereas the traditional approach for fresh technology was to debut a new feature on high-end models, then let it trickle down through a manufacturer’s vehicle lineup, Ford took the unprecedented step of introducing Sync across its model line.

In fact, the launch of Sync was largely concentrated on the Focus, an economy car. Ford realized that the system would likely appeal to tech-savvy young drivers shopping the segment, as opposed to old codgers looking at buying a Lincoln. Ford also made Sync standard on many of its models, and a $395 option on entry-level trim lines. (The option price was later dropped to $295.)

Ford isn't the only mainstream automaker that has made significant gains in car tech, with some even eclipsing luxury brands in some respects.

Voice recognition is one of the most vital and useful features because it allows drivers to control all the latest bells and whistles while keeping their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. But voice recognition rarely functions accurately and consistently, and many drivers wind up not using it. However, whether the system works isn't necessarily tied into the price of the vehicle; I’ve found that the feature in, say, a $16,000 Kia Soul works better than in an $60,000 Range Rover Sport.

Bluetooth hands-free for phone is another example. In its latest Initial Quality Study, J.D. Power and Associates discovered that this feature is one of the most frustrating for car owners. I’ve found that Chrysler’s UConnect system is one of the easiest systems to use and that pairing a phone with it is usually a cinch -- especially compared with certain Mercedes-Benz vehicles in which I’ve had to go through several steps to pair a phone and was still unable to get a device to sync. And with UConnect you can even pair the phone (via its highly accurate voice recognition) while the car is moving, which you can’t do in, say, a Lexus.

Smartphone tethering is starting to allow Internet-connected features in vehicles, mainly via applications. Toyota’s Entune system, for example, allows drivers to use their connected smartphone to perform a Web-enabled local search to find almost anything they would look for online, and then send the address to the navigation system. Car owners can also find restaurants and book reservations through Entune’s OpenTable app, or check which movies are playing in the area, get show times and prepay for admission through a app. The system also has apps for Pandora Internet radio and I Heart Radio for extra entertainment options.

Only a handful of luxury automakers offer something similar. Not surprisingly, Lexus, Toyota's luxury badge, has a version of Entune called Enform that has many of the same features and adds a few extra. BMW Apps allows access to Facebook and Twitter feeds as well as Internet radio stations -- but unless you own an iPhone, you’re out of luck, since BMW Apps works only with Apple devices. Last week, BMW announced that it plans to introduce compatibility for Android devices, though not for another year. Mercedes-Benz is just now rolling out its mbrace2 system, which features access to Facebook, Yelp and Google local search through a connected smartphone.

Of course, most people don’t choose a luxury car based solely on in-car tech features, but rather comfort, performance and status. Still, the democratization of car technology follows the general pattern of consumers getting more for their money each year with consumer electronics. While that’s a bonus for car buyers, it should also cause luxury brands to step up their game.

Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.


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